Moving Meditation & Mountains

Editor —  January 3, 2013 — Leave a comment
Marc Hemmes on top of Notchtop, Rocky Mountain National Park

Marc Hemmes on top of Notchtop, Rocky Mountain National Park

By Lizzy Scully

I am Buddhist. I don’t have rituals, and I don’t adhere to the trappings of any particular type of Buddhism—Tibetan, Japanese Zen, Vipassana, etc. But I do practice meditation daily. And I—who so loves rock climbing up steep inclines and traipsing over talus slopes—often practice meditation in mountains, on mountains, with mountains.

I have always felt freedom and joy moving over mountains, preferably quickly with the wind and sun burning my face. I love flying up the First Flatiron solo, my heart beating fast, my feet stepping up from knob to knob, my hands dipping into my chalk bag to fight back sweat. I regularly run to The Pear, a granite dome on Lumpy Ridge, so I can race up the route Gina’s Surprise and stand atop looking out on the vast Estes Valley below. Movement through mountains was always my meditation practice. But no matter how much of the mountains I got, I still felt constantly agitated, often depressed, often wanting more, but of what I wasn’t sure.

So, eight years ago I started a sitting practice. It was difficult; sometimes it felt like torture. Early on I was a madwoman, with endless pessimistic thoughts and feelings of self-loathing racing around my head. Who knew so much negativity coursed through my neural pathways? But I kept doing it anyway. Like the first day I went rock climbing, it seemed utterly ridiculous and impossible at first, but I instantly knew there was something about it that would change my life.

I live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in Lyons, Colorado. When I settle on my meditation cushion, I face a large picture window. Through the glass I see an open meadow, trees, a river valley, and small peaks, one of which has a band of red sandstone boulders lining the rim. Right now snow lies on top of those big boulders and icicles drip down their sides. In the summer, when I practice outside on my front porch, I gaze on those sunbaked stones, knowing they are hot to the touch.

My daily meditation ritual isn’t very strict: sometimes I sit (or lie down when my body hurts after a day in the high peaks) for just 15 minutes, sometimes for an hour; and occasionally I practice entire days, such as while I’m on retreat in the San Juans of Crestone, Colo., or at the Shambhala Mountain Center. I love the feel of shrine rooms at these centers, and sitting with other practitioners fulfills my desire to know and connect with like-minded travellers on the Buddhist path. But no matter how much I love sacred indoor spaces, I always look with longing out the windows at the sun shining on the snow or the flowers.

That first year I learned to meditate I wondered if I would be able to practice without an instructor outside of a shrine room. But then I went to the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. After five grueling days traveling by bus, and jeep, and another three days on foot to reach our basecamp near the Ogre’s Thumb and the Latoks, I found my answer. Exhausted, I spent a few hours absolutely still on the moraine overlooking the Biafo Glacier. I watched and listened to the glacier fall apart around me. Ice cracked loud like gunshots, stones skittered down the sides of mini ice hills, water rushed fast through sun-melted rivulets and streams on the glacier’s surface, and all around me towering rock walls showered avalanches of snow and stone thousands of feet to the ground. And while I listened and watched, I focused lightly on my outbreath, and reminded myself again and again to let go of the storyline of my thoughts. My daily practice had begun.

I brought my practice back with me to the Rockies, often to Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. I frequently hike to or solo up The North Face of Longs because at its base, I get a glimpse into the abyss of the Diamond’s cirque of walls. I dangle my feet over the edge of Chasm View Wall, which falls 600 feet below, gaze at the snowy Lambslide Couloir that lies directly across the way, and stare up in awe up at the streaked granite of the 1000-foot East Face (called The Diamond). I’ve sat in that spot almost every year for 17 years. At 23, I watched climbers ascend the face and I ached to climb its endless crack systems. Now, after pondering it and climbing it 13 or 14 times, it still inspires wonder, and I still have pangs of craving. But, now as I sit cross-legged for 20 or 30 minutes, those feelings subside, and I more clearly hear the echo of climbers’ voices bouncing across the wall, the ice-melt flowing underneath the boulders, and the high-pitched chirps of the pikas in the talus field. It’s not that I didn’t hear those things before; but they used to be drowned out by the echoes of all the things I desired but couldn’t have and my thoughts of self-hatred.

I don’t know when I started to shift away from hating my self toward loving my self. There was no moment of realization—no reaching a summit. It was during the trudging journey of meditation practice that I learned to listen to my mind, as I learned to tune into the mountains around me. Now, as I hear wind rush over ridges, I hear negative thoughts in my head quickly pass over me. As I watch storm clouds approach while I’m 800 feet off the ground, I see fear in my heart, but know I’m capable of descending safely. And as I feel hail sting my face, I understand feeling pain is OK and that I’ll probably survive even the worst onslaught of it, or I’ll die. Just as the mountains are perfectly, ferociously mountains, I am perfectly, ferociously human.

Lizzy meditating on the Biafo Glacier Pakistan

Lizzy meditating on the Biafo Glacier Pakistan

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